New Delhi/Hyderabad: India rolled out its biggest disaster relief operation in history, successfully evacuating more than a million people out of harm’s way before Cyclone Phailin swept through the coastal states of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, ravaging crops and infrastructure and flattening hundreds of thousands of houses.
Although the loss of life was minimal compared to death tolls in their thousands left by previous cyclones, emergency workers were still looking on Sunday at a challenging rescue and rehabilitation effort, with warnings of impending floods in Odisha.
Thirteen deaths were reported in Odisha, and one in Andhra Pradesh, said the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) on Sunday evening. But a formidable challenge grew from floods, Odisha’s disaster management minister S.N. Patra said in a telephone interview, and the threat of disease outbreaks loomed.
A Panama-registered cargoship carrying iron ore, MV Bingo, was reported to have sunk in rough seas off the coast of West Bengal, but the crew were spotted in a lifeboat by a Coast Guard Dornier aircraft.
In Andhra Pradesh, relief work was underway as teams of revenue department officials and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel fanned out to rescue people and assess damage, said Ekbote Vinod Kumar, assistant commissioner at the disaster management department of the state government.
In Odisha, the authorities set up 1,073 relief camps to house people who had been evacuated or had lost their homes. In Andhra Pradesh, 135 such camps were opened.
Phailin lashed the eastern coast at Gopalpur in Ganjam district of Odisha with wind speeds that went up to 220kmph around 7.30pm on Saturday, bringing heavy rains across south coastal Odisha and Srikakulam district of north coastal Andhra Pradesh.
According to the Indian Meteorological Department, on Sunday night, Phailin had weakened further, turning into “deep depression” with a wind speed of 45-55kmph, and currently lay over northern Chhattisgarh, parts of Orissa and Jharkhand.
In Odisha alone, an unprecedented 873,000 people were escorted to the safety of inland buildings that could withstand ferocious c yclonic winds. Another 129,000 people were evacuated in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh. The previous biggest evacuation was in 1990, when an estimated 650,000 people were moved in Andhra Pradesh for a cyclone, AFP reported quoting NDMA.
In Andhra Pradesh, people were evacuated from the low-lying areas of Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and Visakhapatnam districts, highly vulnerable to Cyclone Phailin, the most powerful storm to hit India since the 1999 Odisha cyclone, when over 10,000 people perished.
The London-based think tank, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), praised Indian authorities for learning lessons from previous disasters.
“Credit is due to those who have been involved in efforts to reduce the scale of vulnerability to disasters across India. The low loss of life, following the strongest storm ever measured in the Bay of Bengal, would almost certainly not have been possible without learning lessons from previous cyclones and tsunamis that have hit this coastline,” said ODI head of climate change Tom Mitchell.
But, he warned: “This is about livelihoods as well as lives. Over the two decades many parts of India—including Andhra Pradesh—will be increasingly exposed to disasters. The focus on how deadly disasters can be should not obscure the fact that many homes, hospitals, shops and schools will have been badly impacted in ways which will drive people into poverty.”
Torrential rains and gales with windspeeds of up to 185-190kmph brought normal life to a halt in north coastal Andhra.
Around 11 mandals (local administrative units) in Srikakulam were the worst hit, the government said, as power and communication lines went down across the district on Saturday. Transport services to the region were hit as most flights operating out of Bhubaneswar and Visakhapatnam were cancelled and several trains were either rerouted or cancelled.
The movement of vehicles on National Highway-5 that passes through Ganjam and Srikakulam districts also stopped.
“The state government took all preventive actions, to avoid any loss of human life,” said Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy.
Around 2,300 personnel of NDRF were pressed into action to help the two state governments in the evacuation, said Marri Shashidhar Reddy, vice-chairman of NDMA and a legislator from Andhra Pradesh.
“This is the biggest deployment ever,” Shashidhar Reddy said, adding that around 500,000 tonnes of food had been kept ready to feed the affected people.
The sea pushed as much as 40m inland in parts of Srikakulam and Vizianagaram districts, said N. Raghuveera Reddy, revenue minister of Andhra Pradesh, who oversaw rescue arrangements from Visakhapatnam. From 1891 to 2012, Andhra Pradesh has been hit by 73 cyclones.
In Odisha, Phailin damaged crops over 500,000 hectares of agricultural land. In Ganjam district alone, where the cyclone made the landfall Saturday evening, 224,000 houses were damaged, disaster management minister Patra said.
The state may lose 1 million tonnes of rice output due to the cyclone and heavy downpour, Trilochan Mohapatra, director of the state-run Central Rice Research Institute in Cuttack, told Bloomberg. He added that winter-sown crop may also be affected because of sea-water inundation following the cyclone.
“There’s not much damage to the rice crops in Andhra Pradesh as of now,” Mohapatra said.
Patra said due to heavy rains, at least four districts—Jajpur, Bhadrak, Ganjam and Nayagarh—are facing threat from floods. “We have alerted the district administration as the water level in several rivers is increasing,” he added.
There were other looming challenges, including the threat of disease. In Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar, Subhash Salunke, director of the Indian Institute of Public Health, said: “The biggest concern is the availability of potable water. We are looking at improving laboratory testing near water bodies to ensure additional outbreaks of vector-borne diseases can be controlled. “The government has been fully prepared and loss to manpower is minimal. Our job is now to reach isolated villages and ensure health systems are in place.”
NDMA said extensive damage to mud houses was expected in Odisha, in addition to “partial disruption of power and communication lines, disruption of rail and road traffic, potential threat from flying debris, flooding of escape routes (and) extensive damage to agricultural crops”.
Meanwhile, the nation was trying to cope with a sharp drop in electricity demand and its impact on the grid due to the cyclone. The load has dropped to 90,000 megawatts (MW) from around 127,000MW, according to top officials managing the country’s electricity grid.
The electricity demand in the eastern region including Odisha has come down from 16,000MW to 6,500MW. The eastern grid supplies electricity to Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Sikkim and West Bengal. With the distribution network being switched off, the demand in Odisha has come down, leaving large parts of the state without electricity.
“There are three reasons for this sharp fall in demand. The factories are closed on account of Dussehra; it is a weekend and then the weather systems brought in due to the cyclone,” said a top government official overseeing the grid requesting anonymity. This dip in demand has strained the national grid network, with thermal power stations being taken off-line to stabilize the grid.
“We are waiting for the load to pick up in the region,” said the official quoted above.
Odisha has an installed power generation capacity of 4682.10MW, including the state’s share in the central and joint projects. The state had electricity demand of 3,448MW in August during peak consumption hours—normally between 8am and 11am, and 6.30pm and 10pm.
Officials say that the worst is behind them with the grid being out of danger.
Mint’s Utpal Bhaskar, Aman Malik, Vidya Krishnan and Nikita Mehta, PTI, AFP and Bloomberg contributed to this story.